Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary / Edition 1

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In this powerful, compassionate work, one of anthropology’s most distinguished ethnographers weaves together rich fieldwork with a compelling critical analysis in a book that will surely make a signal contribution to contemporary thinking about violence and how it affects everyday life. Veena Das examines case studies including the extreme violence of the Partition of
India in 1947 and the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 after the assassination of then Prime Minister
Indira Gandhi.
In a major departure from much anthropological inquiry, Das asks how this violence has entered "the recesses of the ordinary" instead of viewing it as an interruption of life to which we simply bear witness. Das engages with anthropological work on collective violence, rumor, sectarian conflict, new kinship, and state and bureaucracy as she embarks on a wide-ranging exploration of the relations among violence, gender, and subjectivity. Weaving anthropological and philosophical reflections on the ordinary into her analysis, Das points toward a new way of interpreting violence in societies and cultures around the globe. The book will be indispensable reading across disciplinary boundaries as we strive to better understand violence, especially as it is perpetrated against women.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520247451
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 12/4/2006
  • Series: Philip E. Lilienthal Book in Asian Studi
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 296
  • Sales rank: 1,069,521
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Veena Das is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology and Professor of Humanities at Johns Hopkins University and a founding member of the Institute of Socio-Economic Research in Development and Democracy. Among her books is Violence and Subjectivity, which she coedited with Arthur Kleinman, Mamphela Ramphele, and Pamela Reynolds (UC Press). Stanley Cavell is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Harvard University.

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Read an Excerpt

Life and Words

Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary

By Veena Das

University of California Press

Copyright © 2007

The Regents of the University of California

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-24745-0

Chapter One

The Event and the Everyday

IT SO HAPPENS THAT FOR MANY YEARS NOW I have been engaged in thinking
and writing about violence and asking what kind of work anthropology
does in shaping the object we have come to call violence. I have a
picture of this book as some kind of map (or a fragment of one) of the distance
that I have traveled since I first realized how much of my intellectual
biography was tied up with questions around violence: my journey is not
about going forward, but rather about turning back, about collecting words
and thoughts that I think of as having forged connections between me and
my interlocutors in the field. Two major events have anchored my ethnographic
and anthropological reflections, but the book is not about these
events in the sense that a historian or a psychoanalyst might construe
them. Rather, it narrates the lives of particular persons and communities
who were deeply embedded in these events, and it describes the way that
the event attaches itself with its tentacles into everyday life and folds itself
into the recesses of the ordinary. My attention is captured in this book by
both the larger possibilities of phenomena and the singularityof lives.

I was educated into asking these kinds of questions by those who, in
anthropological parlance, are my informants-except that the book is a
response to them-and so if one has a picture of an informant as one who
informs about some prethought questions, then this was not the relation I
bore with them. The burden of the book is not to render their trauma visible
or knowable in the way in which much fine work on war veterans or victims
of major catastrophes has made familiar. I briefly visit those debates,
but my concern is with the slippery relation between the collective and the
individual, between genre and individual employment of stories. Thus, I
asked such questions as: What it is to inhabit a world? How does one make
the world one's own? How does one account for the appearance of the subject?
What is it to lose one's world? What is the relation between possibility
and actuality or between actuality and eventuality, as one tries to find a
medium to portray the relation between the critical events that shaped large
historical questions and everyday life? Since the two events I address-that
of the Partition of India in 1947 and the assassination of the then prime
minister Indira Gandhi in 1984-span a period in which the nation-state
was established firmly in India as the frame of reference within which forms
of community found expression, the story of lives enmeshed in violence is
part of the story of the nation. The two concepts that are knotted together
in various ways in the chapters of the book are the concepts of the voice and
the everyday. I have learned to engage these concepts from the writings of
two philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Stanley Cavell. On another
register, the book, then, is about how these concepts may be received in
anthropology for those who want to think of these matters.

It would be obvious that the questions I ask did not simply come my
way in the course of my work among urban Punjabi families (intensively
in 1973 and 1974 and then intermittently until 1980) who had migrated to
India as refugees from various parts of the Punjab during the traumatic
riots of the Partition in 1947. Nor were the questions posed quite in this
way by the survivors of the riots against the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, among
whom I worked for more than a year. I had to learn to recognize these
questions as somehow mine, animating my life and work: they were not
there because of some textbook formulations on these issues.

In repeated attempts to write a book on the subject of violence, I felt
that every time I succeeded in saying something, I was left with a sense of
malaise, a disappointment with what I had said. Given that there is a certain
air of obviousness with which notions of the everyday and of voice are
often spoken of in anthropological writing, I have been amazed at how difficult
I found it to speak of these matters. Thus, what I present here is not a
piecemeal improvement on what I have written earlier or a filling up of some
details that were missing. Rather, having presented a large part of my ethnography
in the form of papers, I feel that I want to see my ethnographic practices,
my models of reading and writing if you will, as responding to the
pressure of questions on voice and the ordinary, or better, the voice in the
everyday. As the disastrous violence against Muslims in Gujarat in March
2002 makes clear, the events of collective violence continue to shape the
intertwining of experiences of community and state and continue to
become more lethal, especially for minorities in India, though the development
of increasingly critical practices to counter this is also important
to note. I need to find the right distance or the right scale at which this picture
might be sketched.


Marilyn Strathern has eloquently addressed questions of scale and complexity
within the discipline of social anthropology. As she says, "Social
anthropologists route connections through persons. They attend to the
relations of logic, of cause and effect, of class and category that people
make between things; it also means that they attend to the relations of
social life, to the roles and behavior through which people connect themselves
to one another. And habitually they bring these two domains of
knowledge together, as when they talk about the relation between culture
and society." Further, on the tradition of social anthropology in Britain,
she adds, "And the enunciation of rules was understood as the moment at
which people became articulate about relationships.... Social structure
inhered in relationships relevant to people's acts and intentions.... This
model could be enacted over and again in fieldwork. The tradition of fieldwork
meant that anthropologists learnt about systems by entering into
relationships with those whose social life they were studying. Like Saem,
the apprentice gained knowledge in the course of interaction."

Relationships appear crucial to Strathern because they are both the
objects of study and the means through which anthropologists arrive at an
understanding of both abstract and concrete patterns of sociality. Once we
comprehend how concrete relations and abstract relations are connected,
we begin to see questions of scale and complexity in a very different light.
Thus, small-scale societies are not simply those in which face-to-face relations
make it easier to grasp social relations in their totality, nor are complex
societies those in which there is an absence of face-to-face relations.
Indeed, Strathern gives many examples of the complexity of so-called
simple societies and calls upon notions of tacit knowledge to show how
concrete relations are implicated in the production of new forms of sociality
corresponding to dramatic changes in technology.

I take two important formulations from Strathern's attention to relations.
First, that concrete relations that we establish in living with others
are like shadows of the more abstract questions-that is, we learn about
the nature of the world in the process of such living. Second, that we
cannot assign a scale to patterns of sociality independent of perspective.
Indeed, to be able to establish a perspective is to enlarge the field of our
vision. The question, then, is not that of part-whole relations but of establishing
the horizon within which we may place the constituent objects of
a description in their relation to each other and in relation to the eye with
which they are seen. One might also express this in terms of the relation
between the subject and the world. (I would like to note here for later discussion
that I see the problems of uncertainty, doubt, and skepticism as
embedded in the concreteness of relations-if I come to doubt such things
as my relations to my parents, the fidelity of our love, or the loyalty of my
children, these are doubts that put my world in jeopardy. They are like
shadows of the more abstract philosophical doubts about the reality of the
world.) For the moment, I return to some initial formulations on the question
of the subject and the world.

Let us take Wittgenstein's statement that "the subject does not belong to
the world; rather it is the limit of the world." In interpreting this statement
several scholars have suggested that the relation of the subject to the
world is like that of the eye to the visual field-the eye is not itself in the
visual field that it defines. Without going into a sustained defense of my
interpretation at this point, I suggest that in thinking of the subject as constituting
the limit of the world, Wittgenstein is proposing that the experience
of being a subject is the experience of a limit. The world is not
invented by me (as the cliché goes), but then how do I make the world
mine? How am I, as a subject, implicated in experience, for I take it that
there is no pregiven subject to whom experience happens or on whom
experience can be predicated? It is Wittgenstein's thought that the subject
is the condition of experience. Given that he considers the human form of
life as one complicated enough to have language, the question might also
be put as one of taking responsibility for language. If the subject is also
the boundary of the world, there is clearly no particular point in the
course of my life that I can locate as the point at which my subjectivity
emerges. Hence it is Wittgenstein's thought that the subject is never
closed or done with. Being able to draw a boundary itself raises the issue
of the experience of limit. Then how should we see the violence of the
events that frame the ethnography-should we regard the violence as that
which exceeded the boundaries of the world, as it was known? These are
complicated pictures of what it is to make and remake a world, bringing
into question the pictures of totalities, parts, fragments, and boundaries
that we may have. These pictures are tied up with questions of what it is to
write an ethnography of violence-one that is not seen as bearing an objective
witness to the events as much as trying to locate the subject through
the experience of such limits.


A body of critical theories has emerged in recent years marked by the
"rhetoric of mourning." Eric Santner characterizes it thus:

By the "rhetoric of mourning," I mean the recurrence, in so many postmodern
theoretical discourses, of a metaphysics of loss and impoverishment.
The appeal in these discourses to notions of shattering, rupture,
mutilation, fragmentation, to images of fissures, wounds, rifts, gaps and
abysses, is familiar enough. These discourses, primarily post-structuralist
in inspiration, appear committed to the vigilant and radical critique of
what are taken to be narcissisms and nostalgias central to the project of
modernity-namely, Enlightenment faith in progress-and the Western
tradition more generally. These discourses propose a kind of perpetual
leave-taking from fantasies of plenitude, purity, centrality, unity and
mastery. Such fantasies and their various narrative performances, whether
cast in the rhetoric of totalization or of liberation, are in turn seen as the
primary sources of violence in history.

The idea I use of a fragment shares in Santner's sense of loss and impoverishment
but is not directly related to a critique of the Western Enlightenment
project. My sense is to think of the fragment here as different from a
part or various parts that may be assembled together to make up a picture
of totality. Unlike a sketch that may be executed on a different scale
from the final picture one draws, or that may lack all the details of the picture
but still contain the imagination of the whole, the fragment marks the
impossibility of such an imagination. Instead, fragments allude to a particular
way of inhabiting the world, say, in a gesture of mourning. I have
in mind a picture of destruction, such as that sketched by Stanley Cavell
in his writings on philosophy, literature, and film. Cavell takes up
Wittgenstein's famous comment-of his investigations destroying everything
that is great and important, "leaving behind only bits of stone and
rubble"-and suggests that the color that is lent to this abstract conceptual
moment is of a particular hue. In his words: "Could its color have been
evoked as the destruction of a forest by logging equipment, or of a field of
flowers by the gathering for a summer concert or by the march of an army?
Not, I think if the idea is that we are going to have to pick up the pieces
and find out how and whether to go on, that is go on living in this very
place of devastation, as of something over." What it is to pick up the
pieces and to live in this very place of devastation? This is what animates
the description of lives and texts in this book.


The repression of voice and hence of confession, of autobiography, in philosophy
is an abiding theme of Cavell's work. He sees Wittgenstein's preoccupation
with philosophy as leading words back from the purified
metaphysical voice to that of the ordinary, as a project of recovering the
human voice, a voice he sees philosophy as having banished (which is not
to say that it is a humanistic project, as if the notion of the human was
transparent). Thus Cavell's account of voice is not that of speech or utterance
but as that which might animate words, give them life, so to say.
Cavell sees the banishing of the human voice in the register of the philosophical
as a suspicion of all that is ordinary, as the fantasy of some kind
of purified medium outside of language that was available to us. Words,
when they lead lives outside the ordinary, become emptied of experience,
lose touch with life-in Wittgenstein, it is the scene of language having
gone on a holiday. These are the scenes evoked in the theatrical staging of
doubt (surely you cannot have this pain), and if skeptical doubt was to be
expressed only in such theatricality, then one might be right to suspect
that skepticism expresses unnatural doubts. But for Wittgenstein, as Cavell
rightly reminds us, the possibility of skepticism is embedded in the ordinary-
hence, says Cavell, Philosophical Investigations is written in response
to skepticism but not as a refutation of it, for the argument with skepticism
is one that we are not allowed to either win or lose. I read this as
saying that the question is not about knowing (at least in the picture of
knowing that much of modern philosophy has propagated with its underlying
assumption about being able to solve the problem of what it is to
know), but of acknowledging. My acknowledgment of the other is not
something that I can do once and then be done with it. The suspicion of
the ordinary seems to me to be rooted in the fact that relationships require
a repeated attention to the most ordinary of objects and events, but our
theoretical impulse is often to think of agency in terms of escaping the
ordinary rather than as a descent into it.

In the register of literature, Cavell asks whether Shakespearean tragedies
might not be a response to (what philosophy identifies as) skepticism:
"Yet, might it not well haunt us, as philosophers, that in King Lear doubt
as to a loving daughter's expressions of love, or in Othello doubt cast as jealousy
and terror of a wife's satisfaction, or in Macbeth doubt manifested as
a question about the stability of a wife's humanity (in connection with
witches), leads to a man's repudiation or annihilation of the world that is
linked with a loss of the power of or the conviction in speech?" As I have
suggested elsewhere, this theme of annihilation of the world, or of finding
oneself within the scene of world-annihilating doubt, is not necessarily
tied to big events-I then located the unknowability of the world and
hence of oneself in it in the ordinary-for instance, in interactions around
witchcraft accusations among the Azande that interrupt the ordinary but
are still part of the everyday, or in the pervasive sense that the real could
not be authorized in the narratives of health and illness in my ongoing
studies of low-income neighborhoods in Delhi. I argued that in these
cases we get an intuition of the human as if one of the aspects under which
a person could be seen was as a victim of language-as if words could
reveal more about us than we are aware of ourselves.


Excerpted from Life and Words
by Veena Das
Copyright © 2007 by The Regents of the University of California.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. The Event and the Everyday
2. The Figure of the Abducted Woman: The Citizen as Sexed
3. Language and Body: Transactions in the Construction of Pain
4. The Act of Witnessing: Violence, Gender, and Subjectivity
5. Boundaries, Violence, and the Work of Time
6. Thinking of Time and Subjectivity
In the Region of Rumor
8. The Force of the Local
9. The Signature of the State: The Paradox of Illegibility
10. Three Portraits of Grief and Mourning
11. Revisiting Trauma, Testimony, and Political Community



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